Break the Spell
We don't want to think the worst of people, but neither should we be deceived (Luke 21:8, 1 Cor. 15:33, Gal. 6:7). In our last post, we considered six warning signs that someone might be trying to manipulate you. It is a virtue to suffer for righteousness' sake... but it is not a virtue to suffer needlessly, much less for the sake of a spiritual predator.
But assuming that you've identified spiritual abuse, what can you do about it?
Don't be discouraged, and definitely don't heap all the blame on yourself. Remember that it is not too late to extricate yourself, nor is it too late to immunize yourself—though to be sure, it may take time, and even then we're never fully immune until glory!
In order to better break the spell, please seriously and prayerfully weigh the following:
Respectfully but firmly, tell him you are done. Done being used. Done being conflicted, hurt, bewildered, feeling guilty when you shouldn't be feeling guilty. Done spending so much time caught up in things that are keeping you from spending time with your family, or from just enjoying some well-deserved R&R after work.
He will probably try his spells again, and even ratchet up his game. But stand your ground. You don't have to be his puppet. You belong to Jesus, not him. Jesus shed His blood for you, not him. And Jesus, unlike other pretenders, came to set you "free," that you may be "free indeed" (Jn. 8:36).
But if your knees buckle, run. Get out of Dodge, and yesterday. Don't let it be drawn out any longer. If you can find the strength, as you run tell him over your shoulder that you cannot submit to this kind of control. And don't, don't, don't apologize. Don't let him ply you anymore. If ... and I stress if you've come to the conviction that you are dealing with a manipulator, treat him much as you would a violent aggressor who has broken into your home. You may have to refuse to answer the phone calls, block his number, 'unfriend' him online. Don't even answer the door, if you must. There is no law that says you have to answer the door; but there are laws against people for force their way in. Even if you are overreacting, a good pastor should give you distance and time to breathe—and not continue to barrage your inbox or bang on your door.
If you just can't dig your heels in, try asking for 'breathing time.' Ask for three months to be left alone to think and pray (... and recover). But be prepared for counter-offers and counter-pressure. Or a make-up bouquet of tactics two weeks later. Just realize, sooner than later, the door must be locked and bolted. (And maybe a moat installed?).
If you can't speak, write. If the situation is just too sticky, and you just lack the steam inside to do things face to face, send a letter or an e-mail. That way you can carefully and prayerfully put your thoughts in writing. If he replies, "Okay," At least then you'll have things in writing, something to share with another trusted friend to confirm whether you are or aren't imagining things. If he leaves a voicemail, send an e-mail. Rinse, wash, repeat.
At the same time as you do these things, don't go it alone. And so...
Share all of this with a level-headed, trustworthy Christian friend. If you need pastoral counsel, get it from a pastor or elder you trust who is removed from the situation and has no vested interest in things. More doubts? Tap more advisors. "In the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Prov. 24:6).
Talk to your session. If you can't, reach out to the clerk of your presbytery or classis. Ask what you should do, where to go from here. One of the major virtues of being Presbyterian is having checks and balances. The system itself is a testament, among other things, to the reality that even good men go rogue and hurt sheep. The structure is there to serve you and also to protect you. There is no shame, no guilt that you should bear for being victimized. Enough of that!
You don't have to level accusations; just report what your experience has been and leave it for others to assess. Nor do you have to prejudge the true spiritual condition of your pastor or elder. Again, some manipulators are Satan's minions, straight out. Others are the Lord's true servants, but have fallen into various sinful patterns of thought and action that are harming you (and probably others, in the past, present, or future). They need help; maybe even stern help. But if in the end they simply won't be helped, they must be deposed and banished from the sheepfold. Because Jesus died for His sheep, and they belong to none but Him.
* * *
Permit me to close by sharing a personal story. Sadly, I can testify firsthand about the dangerous power of pastoral manipulation.
Various members of my extended family were saved during the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970's. Across the U.S. and especially on college campuses, many were coming to true, personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. At one particular university, a certain gifted, rather charismatic preacher was the human instrument of many conversions and the upbuilding of many on a relatively solid biblical foundation. To this day, I see the wonderful results of the labor of this preacher. Some are now even Calvinists, if not Reformed, with beautiful Christian families. His name was spoken by many with something approaching reverence.
But there were other reports. Some considered him almost a cult leader, overreaching, micromanaging, and over-disciplining. Even those partial to him, as I understand, came to grips with the reality that while a lot of good was done, a lot of harm was done as well. To put it bluntly, there was a mix of trophy and trash. To their commendation, I heard that many friends and fellow leaders in the churches he helped start went a long way to picking up the peaces and laboring after reconciliation.
In any case, I finally got to meet the man myself after a rather enthusiastic relative invited me to come visit. I was impressed; he was well-spoken, engaging, put-together. But it wasn't long at all before he started flattering me, then pressuring me, then plying me about something that involved a family matter intersecting his own pastoral sphere. He was advising my relative one thing, and I was advising the opposite. And so after I left, he had to pursue things and straighten me out. My "negative influence" had to be dealt with, as it was counteracting his perceived righteous cause. The e-mails started rumbling in. Though I had only come to know him days before, he expressed disappointment in me. Not sure if he used the word "betrayal," but I sure felt like he was pinning it on me. The guilt-tripping offset by flattery had a powerful effect.
In retrospect, I can see that this was a time in my lifewhen I was particularly vulnerable. This man's charisma was truly palpable on its own, but my lower immunity helped to double the strength of his spells.
I praise God that He gave me the grace to stand my ground. After an e-mail exchange, I told him in no uncertain terms that I was done talking with him, that his manipulative mumbo-jumbo was not going to prevail. I politely (but firmly) insisted that this would be our last exchange. And so it was. To this day I do not regret it. I feel no guilt whatsoever about it, though I freely confess a myriad of other sins daily to my Lord.
Strangely enough, this pastor out of the blue "friended" me on Facebook not long ago. Interesting. Shouldn't I just let bygones be bygones? After all, "forgive and forget," right?
I decided to decline his request. Do I feel poorly about it? Nope. I don't hate the man; I just don't trust him.
Michael Ives is the pastor of Presbyterian Reformed Church of Rhode Island. He also has been engaged in urban outreach in South Providence, and writes about parish missions at westportexperiment.com.
Mortification of Spin: "Touch Not the Lord's Anointed"
"The Right to Be Believed" by Matt Holst
"I Am My Own Greatest Hardship" by Guy Richard
Our Ancient Foe, edited by Ron Kohl